Peace be with you! How is sharing the peace feeling for you?
One of the significant changes to our worship brought about by the pandemic is “sharing the peace.” Before, the words were often accompanied by shaking hands or hugging. Now it is a gesture at a distance, sometimes we can hear the words, along with a bow, a nod, hands clasped, a sixties peace sign. There is nothing wrong with these gestures. And we have learned that greater physical boundaries feel safer for some, especially those differently able or more physically vulnerable. And we need to not forget that, and the permission needed to touch others. But the proximity, the intimacy even, of sharing the peace of Christ has changed. And with that, there may also be a learning or re-learning of what this ancient ritual, to which we returned as part of liturgical renewal only a few decades ago, holds and means for us in our Christian journey together.
The sharing of the peace of Christ continues what we witness in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus comes to his fearful and confused followers in a locked room, stands among them, and says, “Peace be with you.” And then Jesus shows them his wounds. They see and believe. And Jesus says it again. “Peace be with you.” And breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And gives or reminds them of the power of forgiving and retaining sins. This is the peace of Christ that we continue to share. It is a sharing of Christ Jesus’ Holy Spirit. It is a Spirit of forgiveness. It is a Spirit of peace that casts our fear. It is the Spirit of risen life. When we turn to one another to gesture, to say the words, it is this Spirit of Jesus, of forgiveness and faith, peace and new life, that we are sharing, that we are blessing one another with in the Spirit of Jesus. It is no small gesture.
Professor of worship, Benjamin Stewart, in an article in the ELCA’s “Living Lutheran” titled: “A Powerful Ritual,” writes: “For several early Christians, sharing the peace was one of the most profound - even radical - worship practices…. Originally, sharing peace in worship was considered scandalous because in wider culture it was exchanged only between close family members in the privacy of a home. Early Christians understood the peace as a radical expansion of family ethics. John Chrysostom wrote that sharing the peace is the church’s ‘fuel of love’ and happens ‘so that we may love each other as siblings [love] siblings, as children [love] parents, as parents [love] children.’ Imagine a world today in which we sought the well-being of everyone as if they were beloved members of our family.” Wherever we are, as we exchange words of peace, we are re-membering our intimate connection to Christ Jesus, our intimate connection to one another, our intimate connection to all others as siblings, our intimate connection to the earth and all creatures, that all breathe the same air/Spirit, together. This is the peace of Christ that we receive as Jesus’ followers, the peace we share. It is no small gesture.
And to share this peace in our time - so aware of war and violence across the world in Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria, and for many others; or striking close to home, the home of a neighbouring Ukrainian Catholic Priest’s family unbelievably set on fire in the night, the family barely escaping the flames; or the violence of the street, of lethal drugs, of poverty; or of systemic racism and prejudice, of domestic violence – to share the peace of Christ in the face of this violence is to believe in the resurrecting power of God, to witness to a radical resistance of peace over violence, love over hate, life over death. In the same article, Professor Stewart writes: “In one of the earliest non-biblical accounts of Christian worship, philosopher Justin Martyr wrote that the ancient prophecy from Isaiah – ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks’ (2:4) - was now being fulfilled in the common life of Christians. Justin wrote, ‘We who formerly used to murder one another… now refrain from making war upon our enemies,’ living in peace and no longer fearing death.” Professor Stewart goes on to say, “Peace can feel fragile and vulnerable to violence. But in both Luke and John, the most emphatic greeting of peace is offered by the risen Christ after the powers of violence and death have unleashed their fury on him. The peace Jesus shares is the peace of resurrection, a sign that peace will have the last word over violence.” This is the peace of Christ that we have to share, and that we have to share.
And it is not ours as Christians alone. Our Jewish siblings greet the Sabbath and one another with the words, shabbat shalom (“peaceful sabbath”). Our Muslim siblings routinely greet one another with the Arabic words, As-salamu alaikum (“Peace be with you”). And answered with Wa alaikum assalaam (“And peace be upon you too”). These words join us to one another across spiritual traditions, in calling for, in living out, in trusting and believing in the power and hope of God’s life-giving peace.
How much do you, how much does our world need a word, God’s word, Jesus’ Spirit/breath of peace now?
Author Jan Richardson in “The Painted Prayer Book,” writes about Jesus breathing on the disciples: “You can almost feel it resonating throughout the church: a deep, collective breath being taken. In the wake of the intensity of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter - intensity borne of the starkness of this stretch of the liturgical year (and in the world) as well as its immense, nearly overwhelming richness - we need a pause, a shared regathering of ourselves as we begin to absorb what it means that Christ is risen, that death has not had the final word.
Breath is precisely what Jesus comes to give the disciples, …friends who followed Jesus to the end and hardly know what to do now, reeling as they are from all that has occurred and struggling to discern what happens next.
Jesus breathed on them; John tells us in the gospel. More than any words could have done, this breath comes as gift, as grace: Christ’s own breath that bears to them the Spirit that will enable them to keep living, to keep breathing, to proclaim the astonishing news of the risen Christ, and to be his body in this world. Here on this side of Easter Sunday, what deep breath do you need to take? How will you open yourself to the risen Christ who comes to breathe the Spirit into you?”
And then there’s Thomas. Not present on that first, “first day of the week.” But there on the next Sunday, affirming the pattern of gathering for the Christian community ever since. Thomas, claiming he cannot believe what his companions are saying about Jesus unless he sees for himself. And is this so unreasonable? It is the same chance to see what the other disciples already saw, the risen Jesus showing them the wounds in his hands and his side. And when given that chance, Thomas believes as they do, maybe even more, making the bold confession about Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”
It has been said before about this story of Thomas, but bears repeating, or re-membering, that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Thomas speaks and witnesses to what is also essential to faith - doubt, uncertainty, that is part of our human condition, but also an openness to what we do not know, what God is revealing, teaching, unfolding in our lives and world. Who could have imagined that the crucified Jesus could come to the disciples on that first day of the week alive! bringing peace, to show them his wounds, and to breathe the Spirit, to breathe air and life back into their lungs? None, no matter what words Jesus told them before. No one could have imagined, let alone, have been certain. All feared, all doubted, all were confused.
And I would guess that is an uncertainty, a confusion, a doubt, and fears about the world and our lives that most, if not all of us can identify in ourselves, in this war-torn, pandemic-weary, inequitable, unjust, frightening, broken world, and in our often, hurting, grieving, troubled, fearful lives. These are wounds each of us carry with Jesus. It is not easy to believe, to have faith, to be at peace. But that doubt over certainty can take us beyond our biases and opinions to an openness to see, to see differently, to see Jesus risen and alive in this world and our lives to bring peace, to bring assurance, to breathe the Spirit and life back into us, and call us to our purpose of living forgiveness and justice and peacemaking in the Spirit/breath of the risen life God graciously gives.
Jesus once again, on that second Sunday, offers peace to Thomas and all of them gathered. Offers the same invitation to see. And blesses those, ever after, who gather on the first days of the week, seeking the risen Christ, seeking to believe beyond doubt and fear, who have not seen, but believe. Jesus offers these same gifts of grace on this first day of the week, here, to each and all of us, doubting, fearful, uncertain and wounded, saying, “Peace be with you,” revealing his wounded self in words and water, bread and wine, and breathing the Spirit back into us once again, so that in forgiveness and hope, we offer that same Spirit of peace and new life to others, to this world. Peace be with you. And in all our relations. Amen.